Friday, August 29, 2014

Alaska - Anchorage and Seward

I have finally gotten far enough with my photographs that I can start tackling the blog in sections.  I just can't tell you how overwhelming 16 days in Alaska is.  Huge state.  Huge vacation.

Just getting to Alaska was Julie's 50th state. It may be a very long time until I reach that goal.  I have 47, missing only Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma.   Honestly, I might be happy just leaving it that way.

We flew into Anchorage late one evening, spent the night, and then drove down toward Seward.  It isn't on this map, but it would be about the "P" in Kenai Peninsula. On our way, we were surprised to see a sign for the Alyeska Ski Resort. We had heard of it, but pictured it being up in some massive mountains.  The base was surprisingly close to sea level.
As you will see in these first few photos, there was a recurring theme: rain.  We knew that we were making a trade-off going in late August.  You are into the beginning of the rainy season but you have less bugs and fewer tourists.  What we didn't know was that we would spend good parts of the first 8 days in clouds, drizzle or plain old rain.  You just roll the dice and get whatever weather Mother Nature serves up.

Wet weather does make for pretty flowers though.  I was frequently surprised at how many flowers we saw in Alaska.
Heading to Seward, we also stopped at the Portage Glacier Visitors Center.  The clouds were hindering the views of the glacier, but we did stumble on the celebration of Smokey the Bear's 70th birthday.
Once we got to Seward, we found our little house we rented on VRBO.  I have mentioned this service before:  Vacation Rentals By Owners.  We have used this over and over again to find great places at reasonable prices. Once we settled in, we headed to the grocery store, which also housed the liquor store.  Talk about making you feel at home!  One of the first things we see is a whiskey made right here in Park City.
Seward is a funky little boating town with a population of about 3,000.  The harbor is deep enough that they can bring in huge cruise ships, which seems to double or even triple the population of town for a day.  We quickly started to find examples of "Almost anything goes in Alaska.  Do what you want."  Interesting yard art.
This guy decided that an easy way to make money was to drag a young reindeer around on a leash, let people take pictures of him, and then ask for donations.  It was a form of pan handling that both Julie and I abhor. Reindeer (better know as Caribou when you aren't reading Santa stories) belong out on the tundra, not locked up in some pen.

Our first adventure was supposed to be sea kayaking, but the waves were running too high so we switched and did our planned Exit Glacier hike instead. We hiked about 2-3 steep miles to get to the glacier and then booted up with crampons and helmets before wandering out onto the ice.

Between the hiking and the surprisingly pleasant weather, I was in a t-shirt on the way up.  When we got to the glacier, we discovered the katabatic winds.   These cold winds from the Harding Ice Field were flowing down the ice fall.  Suddenly I was wearing a fleece and fairly heavy rain gear.

Doesn't Julie look ready for anything?

This was our first day with glacial ice and we were stunned by the colors, shapes, textures, and massive size.  Little did we know that we would see ones that were much bigger and more impressive as the trip progressed.
In August the glaciers are retreating pretty aggressively.  It was stunning to see how much the glaciers have disappeared in the past few decades.  If you don't believe the climate is changing very rapidly, take a quick trip to Alaska.  The evidence is everywhere you look.
The next morning we got up to do our sea kayaking trip.  Once again, the waves were just too rough for us to go out in anything other than the local harbor, which is well protected.  Hard to imagine looking at this shot way up in Resurrection Bay.
The challenge is that we wanted to go down around the point, into the next bay, and up to the Aialik Glacier. Once you got out to the Gulf of Alaska, the waves were running around 10 feet.  The 25 foot water taxi that was supposed to take us kayaking didn't stand a chance.  We still wanted to see the glacier so we found a site seeing tour that was heading that way. We went on the Spirit of Adventure, an 85 foot catamaran. You can't get much more stable than that.  Can you?
The first clue that even a 85 footer might live up to its Adventure name was when the captain (a female by the way) said that if you had ever considered taking any type of seasick medication then this might be a great day to start.  Neither Julie nor I had been sick before but we decided to heed the warning and we popped some Bonine.

Sure enough, 10 foot waves are BIG and can toss around a decent sized ship with ease.  Here's a photo of Julie standing next to the doors that burst open when a wave caught the side of the ship.  That basically allowed a big wave of very cold salt water to pound inside where it didn't belong.  Both of us got drenched.  Thankfully my camera was in a backpack a bit further towards the bow.
Sure enough, quite a few people did get sick but the good news is that once we got around the point and into the next bay, the waves were calm and surprisingly, there were no other boats there with us.  Go figure!

The reason that we were motivated to get over in Aialik Bay was to see tidal glaciers. These are glaciers that terminate in water.

It was a bit hard to photograph from a distance, but we did get to see some good-sized blocks of ice calve off and splash into the water.
Although we were able to hike on parts of the Exit Glacier, most areas on the glaciers would be impossible to get around on.  With the never ending compression and decompression, the ice is badly fractured.  Most of these chunks are as tall as a 4 story building.

Another reason to go on the boat ride was to see the sea animals.  One of the highlights of the trip was this humpback whale.  While I only captured crappy back and butt shots like this one, he did breach pretty close to the boat, coming most of the way out of the water.  It was spectacular to see but too fast to get a camera up, aimed and focused. 
Julie and I love the river otters and sea otters.  They are just too cute, floating around in little groups, snacking and enjoying the sunshine.
These were the only mountain goats we saw on the trip.  It's a mom and her young one.
We also saw thousands of nesting sea birds, including puffins, gulls, and kittiwakes. Seals and sea lions found a lot of the same rocky outcrops a nice place to stay. Watching them climb to the top must be interesting.
The next morning we had to check out of our house and head back to Anchorage. Along the way we stopped in to visit the Alaska SeaLife Center. This place was part aquarium, part rehab for injured animals and part research. They had fish, mammals and birds, like this Puffin.
In Anchorage, the wet weather continued.  Our planned hike to the top of a mountain with great views wasn't going to be much more than a view through a cloud.  Instead we did a long hike on their Coastal Trail.  It felt a bit like Park City when people kept coming by on roller skis, training for cross country skiing.  While a lot of the places in Alaska don't get as much snow as we do, the very short winter days and sun closer to the horizon prevent a lot of solar melting.  That helps if you are trying to keep your cross country skiing tracks in good shape.
Finally the sun broke out in the afternoon.  It was only a short reprieve but it gave me a really cool photo of a building.  Anchorage is by far the largest population center in Alaska and looks a lot like many other cities with a few hundred thousand residents.
From here we start on the organized group part of our trip....
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